The Success of MultiTouch is a Lie

Listening to some podcasts about mobile devices I heard over and over statements like "iPhone changed the world with multi-touch" and "Android could compete with Apple if it had multi-touch." This simply isn't true. Okay, while perhaps not a lie, the success and value of of multitouch is extremely overrated. In fact, the iPhone barely uses multi-touch!

Don't believe me? Think back to the iPhone of 2007 when it launched. Or just look at the Apple provided apps in today's iPhone (since not much has changed). How many of these built-in apps use multi-touch? I can only count 3: Maps, Photos, and Safari. All three of them use multi-touch in a single simple way: zooming in and out. You could make a non-multitouch iPhone by simply providing a zoom-out button for these three apps (and a quick-tap for zooming in).

Very little of what made the iPhone interface so revolutionary was multi-touch. What made it so great was the focus on using a single finger for virtually all interaction with the device. The designers at Apple decided from day one to make a device that was finger centric. This means UI controls that are large and require only a tap gesture to activate. Swipe gestures are used for navigation. And that's it. Taps and swipes with a single finger. That's what made the iPhone so great, not multi-touch (or the accelerometer, for that matter).

Oh, and one more thing made it great. The large screen with a capacitive touch sensor. Older touch enabled devices (like my old beloved Treo) used resistive screens which were far less accurate and required you to either push hard with your finger or use a stylus. A Treo with a capacitive screen could have supported an iPhone like interface with ease (even on the much slower hardware available to it at the time).

While the hard glass iPhone screen does support multiple touch-points at once, that's not what made it a success. It's designing an interface and device from the ground up for finger-based touch interaction that changed the mobile device playing field. Multi-touch is simply a red herring.

Finger photo used under Creative Commons from Flickr user bayat

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Posted November 27th, 2009

Tagged: rant